Things we wish we'd known about before we had our baby

We wrote this with baby about four months old, and updated it at a year. It would have been even better if we'd written it continually for the first four months, because you forget stuff almost as fast as you discover it. But we hope it helps. These are some very personal notes from ordinary parents; they are not professional advice. Advice comes from healthcare professionals, so do take it, especially regarding feeding and sleeping.

Baby on the way? Everyone will be giving you advice at this time, but we found 95% of the advice was to do with the birth. You'll probably be finding the same. Afterwards, when we had a small baby in the house for the first time, we looked around, and all the advisors had scarpered. Where was all the useful help when you needed to know simple things about sterilising dummies? What is sterilising anyway?

So if this is any use, great. If not, we enjoyed writing it. Here are our top baby tips, with a few updated notes too.

1. START A DIARY. Falls into the "take lots of seemingly pointless video footage of the baby asleep" category. Just do it. OK, somewhere down the line you might not see the point of having done it. But then again, you may be really glad you did. We kept putting it off. Eventually we started one in week 12. We'd almost totally forgotten weeks 1 to 8, and could remember the events of weeks 9 to 11, but couldn't put a time on them. Even now, Dawn reckons we put Alex in his own room in week 6, and I reckon week 2. And that's one heck of a difference. So although one more job is one thing you think you could do without, make it a habit to spend 5 minutes every day writing down what's happened. We think you'll be really glad you did.

2. NAPPIES. Assuming you're doing the unecologically sound (but sane) disposable thing, understand this: there is no difference between the different brands. But there is a difference between their sizes. Get the brand which has a size such that your baby's weight falls into the middle of the range: if you have an 8-pound baby, and someone does a 6-10-pound nappy, that's the one for you. When the baby's 9 pounds, find the brand which does a 7-11-pound size. We started off thinking that Pampers were rubbish (poo everywhere) and Sainsbury's were fantastic, until we realised the real reason. A Sangenic nappy wrapper (goes in the bathroom and you can put all the used nappies in it, then empty it once a week) was a good investment too.

3. FEEDING. We joined about 50% of our friends who, although intending to breastfeed completely, ended up bottle-feeding at least in part from an early stage. But then again, all the plans you make before the birth are completely overtaken by events. Accept that this is going to happen and you'll feel a lot better about it when it does. Actually, we'd now recommend one bottle a day to even the most ardent breast-feeders. It could be expressed milk if you don't want to use formula (the Avent breast pump worked well in our case, but it's not for everyone). Two reasons: (1) it gets them used to a bottle, they'll have to take a bottle at some time, and teaching a one-week-old is a lot easier than teaching a six-month-old. (2) Consider this: a baby breastfeeding every three hours for 30 minutes (and it could be a lot longer) means Mum can never get more than 2.5 hours continuous sleep. This is a recipe for disaster. However, find a point in the day where feeds seem to be spaced a little further apart, slip in a bottle, and the picture is transformed. In the first few weeks, Alex fed at 8pm, midnight and 4am. We substituted in a bottle at midnight, Daddy did it, and Mummy got a clear 6 hours sleep. Result: sanity all around, and therefore better for baby.

4. STERILISING STUFF. OK, bottles have to be sterilised. This is a weird world though: you (apparently) shouldn't give them a bottle which was sterilised one second over three hours ago, but they pick up a dummy off the carpet and that's OK. We don't understand it all, and nobody we ask does either, but we muddle through. If you have a microwave, then a microwave steriliser seems to be the best approach. You don't need to keep buying supplies (as with using Milton tablets), it's easy (unlike boiling stuff on the stove) and it's transportable (unlike the big steam steriliser jobbies) but the microwave oven needs to be tall enough to fit it in. The Boots microwave steriliser, which we got, is 175mm tall. Fifteen quid for a tupperware container, but there you go. It certainly does the job, and seeing as it gets used 3-4 times a day, I suppose it's one of the cheaper items of baby hardware. We eventually went on to a much bigger one made by Maws which was the same height but 265mm diameter, which does need a big microwave but is fantastic if you do have one that big. If you don't have a microwave, it's down to Milton solution, boiling or those steam sterilisers which look rather imposing. Electric sterilisers are rubbish.

5. BOTTLES. There are two types, the traditional tall ones (e.g from Boots or Maws) and the stubbies from Avent, which is like stuffing a golf ball into their little mouths, but they seem to be fine with it. If the baby is happy with the Avent type, and you don't mind the extra expense, we'd thoroughly recommend them for the simple reason that they're much easier to get the powder in if you're making up powdered milk. You won't regret it. For full-time bottle feeding you'll need half a dozen bottles, for occasional feeding a couple will be plenty to start with.

6. MILK. If using "made-up" milk, the most common brand seems to be SMA Gold; we thought it was a good idea to go for the most common brand because you're more likely to be able to find it in a corner shop in an emergency, and we wouldn't want the little darling to have to change brands, would we? It comes in cartons (ready to use), sachets and big tins. Cartons work out about 50% more expensive, but if you're only on limited bottle feeding, that's not a big difference and the convenience is much more than worth it. Not a big seller though, we find our Tesco only tends to have one tray of 250ml cartons out on display, we buy the whole thing. Later you move on to the one-litre cartons, that's when you decide it's time for the big tins of powder (and converting the kitchen to something resembling a laboratory). The sachets are useful for when you're on the move with baby at a later date. Milk has to be warmed, and the powers-that-be warn against using the microwave ("ooh it's so unpredictable", "did you know it carries on heating up for three days in the baby's tummy?" etc) but it's all rubbish, everyone moves on to the microwave, sometimes sooner rather than later. In the middle of the night, with baby screaming, five minutes to warm a bottle in hot water seems like five hours. A quick 45 seconds in the microwave only seems like four hours. However, if you feel happier with more gentler warming at first (and you do tend to get more warning of imminent hunger at that stage), then dunking the bottle in boiled water for 5 minutes seems more pastoral. We've got one of those joke 1-pint coffee mugs which really proved brilliant. We thought the Avent electric bottle warmer was a complete waste of money - avoid.

7. CLOTHES. People buy you loads and loads and loads of cute clothes, which all have one thing in common: they're for Sunday best. What you really want is babygros. That's what babies like, and they're much easier to change 10,000 times a day. Fortunately these can be so cheap it's astonishing. We got half a dozen from Tesco for a tenner. Plus get an equal number of vests to go underneath for the very beginning. It is much easier to get a baby into clothes that are too big than clothes that are the right size. And babygros without feet 'give' a bit more

8. TOYS. A complete waste of time for several months. Yes of course your baby will be far more advanced than any other baby which ever lived, as well as being the best looking, but toys will be of no interest, no matter how hard you rattle them in front of baby's face.

9. ADMIN. You have to register the baby's birth, you have to apply for child benefit, and nobody reminds you or tells you how to do these things. So why should we tell you? OK, ask if you don't know. But do both. And now you get a Child Trust Fund Voucher!

10. MORE ON SLEEP. A bit like Dad helping with the birth (yeeuch!), having the baby sleep one inch from your head at night is trendy, and you're made to feel like bad parents if you don't do it. Well, we didn't care. We got Alex out into his own room (in a pram carrycot) in the first few weeks, as soon as we could manage to actually sleep without lying there straining to hear him breathing. OK, we put his carrycot in the doorway to his room, about 8 feet away from our bed in reality, but it was just enough that you could hear him cry but not be disturbed by his snuffling, wriggling and heavy breathing. The world became a better place for everyone.

11. PRAMS. Fantastic technology nowadays. The reviews in the magazines and websites are good, but they can't take into account your circumstances, which is what we found to be the real key. You need to sit down and work out exactly what you're going to be doing with the pram. Packing it up into the car a lot? It'll need to fit. There are some ingenious "travel systems" where the car seat comes straight out and fits on a chassis to become a pram. Compromises the comfort a bit, but very clever. However, when we thought about it, we realised we would seldom want to do that (use the pram straight from the car). Normally, if the baby was going somewhere in the car, it'd be to someone's house where we'd be carrying him inside in our arms. The pram would normally be used from home (or someone else's home) only. So the travel system wasn't for us. The best place to shop is somewhere where they ask you the right questions before letting you actually choose a pram. John Lewis (where the staff always seem to have been around for years) and Nippers (which have branches usually out in the country) are great.

12. CAR SEATS. The best ever tip for Dads coming up. But first... You'll need a car seat, if only to get junior home from hospital. It is essential to buy the seat from somewhere which allows you to try it out in your car. We'd have been in real trouble if we hadn't done this, as not a single standard car seat (we eventually found out) fitted our Honda. So you must go somewhere which will take the seat out to your car and see that it fits. Seat belts are often too short for some designs, seats are odd shapes, etc. Nippers was fantastic for this. Obviously many town centre stores will have problems. Now here's the best ever tip for Dads. When you leave hospital, they give you the baby, and you lead a fragile Mum out to the car. What you do not want happening at this point is the realisation that you don't know how to put the kid in the car seat. Mum will not have any patience, the baby won't like being outside (it'll be the first time) waiting for you to read the instructions, and it'll all end in tears (three lots, probably). So (and this is not as daft as it seems) practice beforehand. And practice again. And again. You've got to be really slick on the day. And you'll be terrified. What do you practice with? What's baby sized, has the right number of limbs etc, and doesn't mind being practised with? That's right, your favourite teddy. It's actually quite fun.

13. BABY SLING. The Baby Bjorn baby sling (baby carrier) is the most fun thing that has ever been invented for babies. Just get one. We can't say any more.

14. CLASSES. For goodness' sake, if it's more than three months before the birth, you've still got time to join your local NCT (National Childbirth Trust) branch and go to the ante-natal classes. If you ignore everything else above, don't ignore this one. You'll meet other first-time parents locally (and you'll keep them as friends), you'll learn hundreds of things you'll be so glad you knew about, and you'll have access to all sorts of support afterwards. We simply cannot imagine how we'd have coped without our NCT teacher and the friends we made there. Some people have some strange ideas about the NCT; in particular it has a reputation for promoting weird and wonderful methods of childbirth. This is simply not true: it just has a mission to make sure everyone knows about all the options available. If you don't know what Pethidin is, if you've never changed a nappy or even if you just want to know there are other people in the same boat as you, go to the NCT classes.

15. BOOKS. The great thing about "how to bring up your baby" books is that there are so many, there's always one which will correspond to your own views. So you'll leaf through a selection in the bookshop, and say "this one looks interesting", but in reality, it's the one which most obviously backs up what you'd naturally want to do anyway, such as "be strict" or "don't be strict". We know - we did just this. However, there was one book which stayed on the bedside table long after the rest had been left to gather dust on the bookshelf. It was BabyTalk by Sally Ward, and it's all about communication - both getting through to your baby, and understanding what they're trying to tell you. It takes you right through the early years, acting as a good reference to where your baby ought to be in terms of speaking, reading and comprehension, and it puts some good practices in place if you're disciplined enough to follow them. I've written a review at Amazon UK and you can order the book from there.


And finally... everyone will be helpful. But the longer ago people had their own babies, the more useless the advice. Anything over a couple of years and you'd be better off ignoring it completely, not necessarily because it's out of date, but because they get this selective memory which filters out the crap bits. Anyone who had a baby more than a year ago can no longer remember what having a one-week-old was like. And they certainly won't be any help with practical hints and tips.

Find whoever you know who's had a baby the most recently, latch on to them and ask them even the most seemingly stupid questions. You'll think you're annoying them. But quite the opposite: they'll think it's brilliant. There's nothing new parents like more than to pass on everything they know to even newer ones. All you want to talk about is babies, but nobody other than other new parents wants to listen. So exploit that for all it's worth.

Dawn and Chris Rand, proud parents of Alex, March 2001.